Roughly 2,000 garment workers protested yesterday outside three factories in Por Sen Chey district after the owner abruptly shut down operations and fled – within a day of sending them to listen to a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen about how the country does not need a labour court to settle disputes.
Workers at Yu Fa Garment Industry and its sister companies, Yu Da Garment Industry and SRE Garment Co Ltd, say they are now without their severance or pay for the month of January.
Employee Keang Sath, 32, said workers were given the afternoon off after being sent to listen to Hun Sen’s speech on Wednesday morning. In the interim, the factory was shuttered.
“When I came to work this morning, the factory was locked and they wouldn’t let us go inside to work,” Sath said. “They told us the owner ran away and that there is no work for us.”
According to Sath, the factory recently changed owners and many employees had been asked to work half-time last month.
In his speech Wednesday, Hun Sen told Sath and other workers that there was no need for a specialised labour court in Cambodia and that they should be able to find “win-win” solutions with their employers on their own or through the existing Arbitration Council.
Labour rights advocates, while divided on the need for a labour court, said that the Yu Fa case exemplifies why more regulations are needed to protect workers.
Solidarity Center’s William Conklin said that although the government often steps in when a factory closes to sell its remaining assets and distribute the proceeds, the amount is often less than what workers are legally owed.
“Sometimes, [the severance] can be a very large amount,” Conklin said. “It’s not surprising the owners most likely don’t have it or don’t want to pay it.”
Conklin suggested that factories be required to put down a deposit that can be used to pay severance for workers in case the owner absconds.
Moeun Tola of Central said while he believes a labour court is needed, he prefers enhancing the powers of the Arbitration Council, which operates independently.
For now, “if the owner ran away, we should look at their parent company and the brands who sourced from the factory,” Tola said.
A woman who answered the company phone yesterday declined to speak about the situation because she was “small staff”. However, workers said the company supplies US brands Walmart and JCPenney.
Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour said in a message yesterday that the ministry had the “means, laws and regulations” to handle the case.
“It is not the first case,” Sour said. “We successfully solved the case in the past. We will keep working and fighting for the benefit of workers.”
Garment worker Hoeun Malay, 24, who is eight months pregnant, said a solution is needed quickly.
“I was so sad when I heard,” said Malay. “I don’t have money to deliver my baby. If I don’t get my salary pay, I don’t know what I will do.”